Why I Left Facebook

I deleted my Facebook account a week ago, and I’ve been working on a post since then explaining my decision. But my draft has grown superfluous with every passing day as an increasing number of news outlets have covered the problems surrounding Facebook’s recent privacy policy changes. If you’ve somehow missed the news, you can catch up by reading the following pieces:

With that ground already covered, this post is not going to center on the general issues surrounding privacy on Facebook; instead, I want to discuss some of the personal reasons why I quit, in part as an explanation intended for the network I left behind.

Thinking About Leaving
I had robust networks on both Facebook and Twitter. Like Luke Waltzer, who described his reasons for staying on Facebook on his blog, I used Facebook mostly to connect to people from my past, while on Twitter, I connected mostly to colleagues in my academic field. Over time, these networks became somewhat interpenetrated, but generally, I thought of Facebook as a quasi-personal space, and Twitter as a quasi-professional space. It was on Facebook that I posted photos of my ten-month old baby and on twitter that I posted links to articles about the digital humanities.

I’ve heard friends and colleagues — people who quit Facebook in recent weeks, like Boone Gorges, Dan Cohen, CogDog, and Carlo Scannella, or people who never never joined, like Dave Parry — claim that they rarely visited Facebook anymore and that they no longer valued the connections they had made there; it had stopped being a valuable space for them, and when Facebook compromised the privacy of that space even further, leaving became an easy decision.

I very much wanted to share photos of my baby with family and friends, but I didn’t want to share them in a space run by a man who believes that privacy is dead.

That wasn’t the case for me because I valued, and continue to value, the wonderful network I had on Facebook. I loved sharing baby photos with friends there; I loved the funny and ironic status updates that my friends posted, and that led to humorous discussions in the comments; I loved the support and camaraderie that members of my network showed for one another.

I remember Dan Cohen tweeting that one reason he had left Facebook is that anyone who wanted to contact him merely had to google him to find his online portfolio, blog, and email address. While that is true for me, too, I know that leaving Facebook means that I am leaving behind conversations that won’t happen elsewhere. Yes, my old college and grad-school friends can email me if they want to, but it’s a whole lot easier to post a comment on a status update than it is to send an email. Most people have a to-do list of emails that they need to send; no one I know has a similar list for Facebook comments. The ease and speed of the Facebook platform made connecting to others both easy and fun (and that ease of sharing, of course, is what built up a critical mass of members and equity in Facebook).

I most emphatically did not want to quit Facebook, because my network was very valuable to me.

And that was exactly why I had to quit.

How We Value Our Networks
The idea of “network value” recurs in many of the posts I’ve seen about Facebook; my friend Boone Gorges used it to explain why he had quit Facebook, but not Google, even though both platforms compromise the privacy of their users. His Facebook network wound up having little value for him, but the functionality provided by Google’s services (mail, docs, chat, calendar, etc.) was so valuable to him that it was worth the cost of lost privacy.

What I came to realize is that the more I valued the connections I had made on Facebook, the less I thought they should be happening on Facebook

What I came to realize is that the more I valued the connections I had made on Facebook, the less I thought they should be happening on Facebook. I very much wanted to share photos of my baby with family and friends, but I didn’t want to share them in a space run by a man who believes that privacy is dead.

It’s that simple: I deleted my Facebook account because I loved my facebook network and didn’t want to see my interactions with it mined relentlessly by a company without scruples. And now, a week after deleting my account, I miss that network terribly. But I will not go back to the site because in enabling connections between friends, it corrupts connections between friends. It simultaneously creates and undermines the value of member networks — from the member’s standpoint, at least. Facebook itself only gains value as it data-mines user networks.

Open Alternatives

It’s important for us to remember that as strong as Facebook is, it is not the only social-networking model out there. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that I quit Facebook is that I recently watched an immensely powerful talk by Eben Moglen of Columbia titled “Freedom and the Cloud.” In an hour of brilliant lecture that is part history lesson and part jeremiad, Moglen describes the central problem with cloud-based computing (“you can’t point to the server”) and lays out a vision of a free and open-source social network that can replace sites like Facebook. I urge you to watch; it’s what pushed me over the edge and finally got me to quit Facebook.

You might have heard about Moglen’s talk in the recent New York Times article on Diaspora* the open-source Facebook alternative that four NYU students started building after hearing Moglen speak in February.

I’ll rebuild my Facebook network there, or in some other open space, as soon as I can.

And as for Google? Well, maybe I need to watch that Moglen video one more time.

8 thoughts on “Why I Left Facebook

  1. Luke

    Great post, Matt, and I appreciate your sharing how torn you were about this decision and the loss you feel as a result of it.

    I’m not sure that I feel my relationships with the people I’m connected to on Fb are “corrupted” by Fb’s behavior. That suggests a vulnerability exists in those relationships because they are acted upon primarily in that space. But we’ve both argued that those relationships aren’t based solely in that space (like many via Twitter), and that the emotional ties we feel to that network are because it links us to our lives. If anything, many Fb connections are a stage in relationships that might now otherwise reside only in our memories. Like you say, it easily enables connections between old friends who likely otherwise wouldn’t connect: that can be significant value. So, “corrupted” just doesn’t sit right with me because it implies those connections are somehow weakened by Fb’s exploiting them. I guess I need to think more about this. Maybe when I finally take the time to watch Moglen’s talk the switch will flip.

    The other thing I’ve been wondering through all of this is, what is your take on Zuckerberg? I haven’t gone to school on him like some of the folks you linked; I’ve just read about the IMs in college, the statements about privacy being dead, the lame justifications he’s issued for Fb’s behavior. I feel that there’s really just not much depth to his thinking, not in the least, and that Fb’s power and pervasiveness give his banal statements the weight of Grand Theory. Arendt, banality, evil, all that. That’s what I felt reading those IMs… he brilliantly created a way for people to connect; but that doesn’t mean that he understands the implications of those connections, and it’s certainly clear that he doesn’t have the empathic capability to scale his thoughts along with his monster. I don’t know where I’m going with this, just wanted to get it out there, because I think a lot of the backlash against Fb, like what Boyd is writing, is theory to counter a theory that’s really not much of a theory at all (which doesn’t mean the exercise is not useful… far from it). I mean, I don’t think you need Habermas on the public sphere to refute Zuckerberg! Don’t fucking bait and switch, Business Ethics 101; you don’t need much more than that. For me, the most exciting and interesting question is, what work is the backlash doing? Diaspora embodies some hopes; arguments about “regulation” are emerging as well which comes with its own can of worms.

    I know, half-formed thoughts… that’s why I wrote them on your blog and not mine. :-f

  2. Matt Post author

    Thanks very much for your response, Luke. Quitting wasn’t an easy decision for me, and I do feel it as a loss. I’ll admit that I spent the first day after submitting the FB deletion request reconsidering my decision. I’ve gotten over that, thankfully, though I do feel like I’m home studying while a party is going on elsewhere.

    Let me explain why I used the word “corrupted” (and maybe “contaminated” might have been closer to what I meant): FB facilitates the sharing of information, but the nature of the network corrupts the information shared on it by opening up a second level of exploitative data mining that users don’t see. The privacy system is so convoluted that it is almost impossible to be truly private on FB — even if you have dialed up your privacy settings — making your info available only to friends, opting out of the “like” system, visiting every single one of the third-party sites facebook has contracted with and blocking it — your information is still vulnerable if your friends haven’t done the same. Information shared on FB, then, becomes not simply an exchange between friends; it becomes information that is shared by the platform itself with shadowy third parties (do you really want Yelp! having access to photos of your son?), which opens them up to who knows what.

    As you pointed out on twitter not too long ago, a similar thing happens on google when I use gmail or gchat or gcalendar. So what’s the difference between Facebook and Google? Or, for that matter, with email — aren’t we opening ourselves up to vulnerabilities when we do anything less than send PGP encrypted email from our own server domains? And, as Mark Sample joked today, should we not use credit cards if we’re really concerned about privacy?

    These are all tough questions to answer, though I think that Moglen, for one, does want us to abandon our gmail and our credit cards. But those of us who choose to partake in some parts of the cloud but not others need to draw some lines between companies we trust and companies we don’t. Facebook, to my mind, has shown itself to be so untrustworthy, so aligned against the interests of its own users, that I can no longer bear to use its product. Continuing to do so, for me, would be tantamount to acquiescing to a robbery of my own house.

    While I’m still making up my mind about Google — certainly, I share much more and much more important information on gmail than I did on Facebook — I was somewhat heartened by its ultimate response to the Buzz controversy. I’m still skeptical of it, but I don’t have the same sense that I do of Facebook that it is shaking my hand with one hand and picking my pocket with the other. Maybe that makes me blind or naive, but that’s where I am right now.

    As for Zuckerberg, I’m not reading him too closely.

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